“Where you from?”
“Brooklyn.” I look away from her and to the window. Snow pelts against it. It was thin and dusty when my mother stoically drove me up here, but since my arrival it’s grown heavy and thick.
“Oh, yeah?” The woman raises her eyebrows and bugs out her eyes to get a closer look at me. “Brooklyn, New York?”
“I was raped in Brooklyn, did you know that?”
I couldn’t have possibly known that about this stranger, but she keeps pushing out her eyes, the whites of them stark against her dark skin, and I feel forced to give an answer. “No. I didn’t know that.”
“Now you do. I was raped in Brooklyn. In 1978.”
“In Brownsville. You ever been there?”
“I’ve been there. I’m not from that part though.”
“But you been there?”
“Yeah. I’ve been there.”
“I was visiting my cousin. You got any cousins, miss pretty?”
“Hmm,” she looks at me suspiciously, as if she’s wondering what kind of person doesn’t have cousins. “Well I was visiting my cousin. 1978, crack was spreading. I ain’t smoked any yet, though, no missy. I was a good girl back then. Like you, you look like a good girl.”
“I’m not.” I don’t know how she thought a good girl could even be sitting here with her.
“Well then. You know everyone’s born a good girl, right?” I only give her a nod. I don’t want to interrupt her again. “Well I was walking down the street, down my cousin’s street, heading back. It was late, but not so late that I knew I shoulda been scared. You know?”
I don’t nod. I don’t have to; she knows I know what she’s talking about. I squeeze the couch that we’re sitting on. The heavy plastic cover ripples against the upholstery at my touch. I wait and she continues.
“Anyways, some man grab me. Oh, how I screamed. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. I was a good girl. Good. He dragged me down the stairs of this building, to the basement. Rats and people’s old shit everywhere. Those apartment buildings they have out there, you know them?”
I just look up at her.
“You know them?” She asks again.
“I know ’em.”
“Well, he drag me down all those stairs kicking and screaming. I knew what he was gonna do. I wasn’t naïve. I knew—”
“Is Miss Patty scaring you, hun?” I look up and see a woman with skin that’s dry and worn, pulled over the bones of a former beauty. Her voice has a slight scratch to it, just the very beginnings of her lungs turning to dust. “You must be Maddie, am I right?”
I’m the only new girl they’re getting today, but still she acts like she’s psychic.
“No, we just getting to know each other.” Patty answers for me, and squeezes my shoulder. My muscles relax under her tight grip. She wasn’t scaring me.
“Well, anyway, Miss Denise’s ready for you. She’ll get you set up and show you your room.”
I just look at her.
“Why don’t you follow me, hun?”
I turn back to Patty, who shrugs. “I’ll tell you the rest later,” she says as she begins to walk away. She enters another room, and passes through a doorway that has a prayer painted above it. It’s baby-shit yellow fading onto a dusty blue wall. It reads,
God, Grant me the
Serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can, and the
Wisdom to know the difference.
The quote is followed by the symbol of the cross. I’ve been around the rooms long enough to recognize it. But with the letters peeling off this forgotten wall, it looks older, like it was part of some ancient lost civilization. Like it’s from so far back into history that it’s not real anymore.
I get up and follow the woman. We leave the living room, and she weaves through a hallway. “I’m Cheryl, by the way?” She says as we reached a closed door. I realize I should have asked, but it feels too late to salvage anything. “You’re very pretty,
“Thank you.” I try to count the scuffs and paint drips on the wall beside me.
“I used to be just as pretty as you.” She looks at me carefully, her eyes reading the lines of my face, searching for something.
I don’t respond. I feel her eyes, but keep mine fixed on the floor, the walls, the next doorway.
“She out there with you, Cheryl?” The voice is a boom, a stroke of thunder.
“Yes, Miss Denise, she’s out here.” Cheryl’s still looking at me.
“Send her in, then.” It isn’t a question.
I go in. The long room is in the very back of the house. It’s dark. There are only a few dimly lit lamps sprinkled around, just enough light for it to be considered “on.” Bookcases stuffed with titles I can’t quite make out separate the bed from the desk. I didn’t think the house manager would actually live here, with us. I stand in the doorway, unsure of which way to move, or if I should move forward at all.
“Hello,” I say. Finally pushed by the silence to speak.
“You can come sit.” A large black woman gestures to the chair at the desk. She’s at least six feet tall, imposing in her small sanctuary. I sit. “I’m Denise. I’m in charge of this house.” She pauses, and pulls my eyes to hers. “I have your file here.”
“Okay.” I think back to my entry interview, about the questions quickly answered, about how the woman asking me the minute details of my life wanted exact amounts in grams and liquid ounces. I did my best to estimate, but I was unsure, unable to think past the hazy panic.
“I don’t think you’re going to be much of a problem. It’s your first time, right? That’s what it says here.”
Denise eyes me, suspiciously. “You never tried to get clean before?”
“No.” I pause, “Well, I mean, not with help. Not seriously.”
Mine and Amy’s room is on the third floor. I pass a clock on the landing. I’ve been out of detox for a whole day. One whole day. Somehow, those days in that hospital bed don’t count to me. They feel like an extension of using, dirty, not clean. I still had a needle in my arm. Today is the first day I’ll count. I carry my belongings, all of which have been thoroughly searched, in large black trash bags swung over my shoulder.
The door is cracked, but I knock anyway.
“Maddie?” A soft voice calls. I’m surprised to hear my own name.
“Yeah.” The door opens in one swift motion; a wave crashing quicker than I
thought it could, throwing me off balance. She stands there with a bright smile, her shiny white teeth proudly on display. Her hair is dyed in chunks, they’re stripe-like, a tiger’s side. Black then blonde, black then blonde.
“I’m Amy. I’m so glad you’re here!” She pauses, and in an effort to push past my confusion, she says, “Denise told me we’d be roommates. Come in, put your stuff down.” I do as I’m told.
I listen in and out of focus as I pull my belongings out of their bags and put them in a rickety pressed wood chest. Amy talks and talks, unbothered by my silence. “I mean, don’t be surprised if it happens to you, too. Denise said you were using dope, right? Just like me. I mean, just like almost all of us. Well, some of the older girls are crackheads, but the young ones, like us, it’s always dope. You were shooting, right? I can tell by the purple under your eyes. Some people say it doesn’t make a difference, shoot or snort, it does the same shit to your body, but I don’t think so. I could feel the difference, you know it. I can tell. You know it.” Finally, she looks at me. She stops talking, and I stop unpacking. Her eyebrows shoot up inquisitively.
“Yeah,” I say. I look back to my trash bag and gingerly pull out a pack of cigarettes. I chose to come up to Connecticut because they still allow you to smoke in rehabs here. In New York, it’s illegal. Seems ridiculous, to not be able to smoke while you get clean. So I had to come up here, a couple of extra hours north, with a case of Marlboros that would hopefully last the month. My mom didn’t care that I was going further away. She just wanted me to be here.
“You should hide those. Hide them everywhere. I won’t take them. I don’t smoke. But we don’t have locks on our doors, and some girls are just dying for a cigarette and can’t afford them all at once like that. Don’t put them in socks neither, everyone always checks socks.”
“All right, don’t look then. So you won’t have to lie when they come.”
Amy bursts into laughter, although I’m not sure I was joking. It seems like my mouth moves and my mind makes words, and everything happens without me really knowing it’s happening. Like I am gone somehow, but my fingers keep hiding packs of cigarettes anyway.
“I’m gonna try to go to the bathroom, again.” Amy says, standing. “Wish me luck! Eighteenth day’s the charm, right?” She closes the door as best she can on her way out, but it creaks back into its comfort zone of slightly ajar.
I go to the window, pack in hand. It’s double-paned, but one of the panes is broken. Someone duct-taped it back together in a sorry attempt at making it whole again. I peer through the broken glass and out to the back yard. Snow is everywhere. It collected even on the minuscule edges of broken glass, thicker than a dusting. Ounces and grams of it.
I hear my coming back down the hall, and quickly stash a pack between the window and the radiator, which is certainly not warm enough to be working. “Hey,” I say when she enters the room again, feigning friendliness.
“Hey. No luck. Maybe in the morning I’ll be able to shit again.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Can’t shit. I haven’t shit in eighteen days. The doctors did an ultrasound and I’m just literally full of shit. Something that happens sometimes I guess.”
I throw up before group. I don’t tell anybody. It’s not my body’s doing, I can tell. It’s my stupid, fucking nerves. There’s a pregnant girl in the house, anyway. Hopefully if someone smells it in the bathroom they’ll think it was her. I hate talking. I hate being forced to tell my story. It’s just like everyone else’s.
I look at myself in the mirror as I spit into the sink. My copper hair is wiry, unconditioned. My under eyes are dark, just like Amy said. But they seem more blue than purple to me. Like little midnights bursting out of my face, pushing their way forward, refusing to be forgotten. Making me remember what midnight used to feel like, and how I loved the comfort of the darkness. It seemed almost appropriate, the things I did, when I did them at midnight.
They drive us in a van to The Center. It’s just an office building, The Center. People come from their homes in the outside world, and from other houses like ours, to talk to each other. In groups. My bile sits in my esophagus, lapping at my throat, all day long.
I’m not in Amy’s group. We’re separated. I wish I could’ve found her face, her tiger’s stripes. I look around the room. There are no bold smiles, only sallow faces, and hoodies pulled over heads.
The counselor, Jessica, makes me introduce myself. She’s wearing a body-con dress that shows off her many tattoos, and I don’t wonder too long what brought her to this kind of work. She says, “Maddie, can you introduce yourself to the group?” So kindly, like maybe it would be okay if I say that I can’t.
“What should I say?”
“Just your name, age, where you’re from, and your drug of choice.”
“I’m Maddie, I’m from Brooklyn, I’m an opioid addict.”
“Great, and how old are you?” I immediately think of actually dying in shame. I can’t even introduce myself properly. The bile laps more vigorously.
“Nineteen.” As soon as I say it, I see the eyebrows that sit above a tired and wrinkled middle-aged man’s face rise in a familiar way. I want to tell him to go fuck himself. But I don’t. I stay quiet and listen.
“I don’t know how much to tell my wife, or how much she knows,” he says. “I wanna move on. That’s what I know. She knows I cheated, but she doesn’t know I smoked crack with hookers, ya know? She doesn’t know I did that in the same car I would drive the kids to school in a few hours later. I just wanna move on.” He wrings his hands, but his eyes are two stones. I want to smash my head against a wall listening to him, that’s all I know. I can’t imagine that I’m in the same room as this guy, or that I’ll ever owe the same kind of apologies that he does.
Amy sits with me in the van on the way home. She comes up to the room with me when we get back to the house. When she closes the door to the best of her ability, she says, “You get really anxious, huh?”
“Are you on anything for that?”
“Lexapro. But I guess that’s more of an antidepressant.”
“Ask them to put you on Paxil. It’ll be better for you.”
“You a psychiatrist, now?” I don’t mean it kindly, but she laughs anyway.
“Maybe, someday.” She says. I’m surprised that she seems so sure she’ll have a future. “I’ve been around these places a while.”
It’s not snowing anymore. They say it’ll start again, though. We’re expecting blizzard after blizzard. I sit on the back stoop that leads out to the garden. It’s barely dawn. The sky is a purple haze, unsure what kind of day it will become. The snow is jumping around in the wind, trying to trick my eyes into thinking it’s falling again.
The cherry of my cigarette grows and grows. I smoke too hard, everyone always says. I light another one as soon as I reach the filter of the first, not giving up the moment.
Thoughts begin to run through my mind, quick and fanciful like the snow. I want to go further. Further, outside. Further, into what I started. I still don’t want to think about myself. I want to see outside myself, like I used to. My hands have been feeling shaky since yesterday. I’m supposed to go to group again today, once the sun has risen and the van arrives, and I guess I will. I’ll go and sit and I really fucking hope they don’t make me say anything.
It feels like someone’s grazing me with the lightest touches all over my body. It’s this invisible agony. I wonder if anyone knows that it’s humming under my skin. They must. It’s under the skin of everyone in this house.
I throw down my second cigarette into the snow half-smoked. It’s cold, too cold to be outside. And I don’t want it anymore. I know I shouldn’t be thinking like this, but I feel like I’ll be able to get more soon, anyway. Like I don’t need to be so careful with them.
The van comes and I get in it. I think of my mom, driving me all the way up here. I get in the goddamn van for my mom. I don’t want to break her heart, I want to just do this the one time and be better forever. But just thinking about her heart makes the agony in my veins shudder. I didn’t really know how hard getting clean would be. It’s like I’m looking at myself in the mirror and I just become uglier and uglier until I finally see that I’m large and grotesque, a horned and scaly beast, but I can’t look away. I have to watch and feel how this monster moves through the world.
I sit in group and listen to people talk to Jessica. I don’t say anything, and she doesn’t make me. I’m hot and cold. Sweating and terrified. My tongue won’t stop moving in my mouth. I hope people can’t tell when they look at me. We’re not allowed to talk about drugs, not explicitly. We’re not allowed to talk about anything explicitly.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m a real old fashioned alcoholic, I’ve been a drunk for decades. I didn’t just wake up and decide that I might have”—a man I don’t remember seeing before dips into a mocking baby voice—“a liddle problem.” Jessica just lets him talk all this trash. She doesn’t interrupt him and he keeps going. “I’m not some kid with a whole life ahead of me, most of my life is behind me, ya see.”
On our way out, one of the guys who commutes pulls up alongside me in the staircase. “Hey,” he says. He’s like, thirty-something. He’d spoken very earnestly about his young daughter in group, about being a good man for her.
“Hey.” I give him a half-smile, knowing better than to give too much.
“You gave me a semi when you took off your sweater in there,” he says, and gestures at his dick. I can see its outline through the dark denim.
“Alright.” I walk a little faster down the stairs, but I don’t run.
Group is the same today. Jessica asks me about my family but I don’t give her anything. Thankfully no one mentions fucking hookers. A woman, like me but a little older, gets most of the group time.
“I don’t think Will was, like, fertile or whatever. Cause I didn’t think I would be that easy to get pregnant. One time with Rodney, and that’s it, I’m pregnant with some jerk-off’s baby. I still asked Will for the money, I didn’t think he had to know about Rodney and I didn’t think Rodney would pay. Will cried. Said he would’ve loved it. And I didn’t feel anything that you’re supposed to feel. I didn’t feel shit.”
Jessica tries to talk her into caring, about Will, about Rodney, about the baby, but she’s adamant she doesn’t.
I hide in the bathroom during lunch. I don’t want to eat the chicken salad sandwiches another day. I can’t. Instead I sit on the toilet with my pants down. I don’t need to use the toilet. I just pull down my pants in case someone comes in to look for me, so they’ll think I’m shitting and leave me alone.
Amy doesn’t sit next to me in the van back. She doesn’t look at me. Jessica talked about not making everything about ourselves. I try to not think about Amy hating me. Maybe she just hates herself.
One of the girls makes pernil for dinner. Denise doesn’t usually let us girls cook, but it’s Nic’s last day, and she’s done really good. Everyone says she’s gonna make it. She’s one of the smiley ones, like Amy. I didn’t really talk to her, but even I know that she’s on her way.
We all eat together, like we always do, but this time it’s special. Patty’s giggly and talking about her grandbabies, and even Cheryl manages not to frown. Amy and Nic are chatting about seeing each other when Amy gets out too. The pork is perfect, the skin cracks against my teeth, and the grease wets my lips. It’s not enough though; none of its enough.
The pregnant girl gets a call, and Denise even lets her pick up the phone. She’s allowed to do things like that ’cause she’s pregnant. She let me touch her belly, once. I didn’t feel anything, but I guess babies that little don’t move. Her veins were purple on her stomach, too bright for my taste. She was using before she knew. She doesn’t seem as scared as she should.
I can’t stop looking at that guy during group, the one who likes me. I look at him like maybe he can make me stop thinking about myself, can help me from thinking about what I want. He’s talking about his kid, his job, and the whole wide world outside of here that he gets to live. He’s just here for drinking, because of a DUI, he says. He meets my eyes. I don’t look away. My eyes feel heavy, like their lids have weights, and my mouth smiles even when I don’t want it to.
I go to the bathroom again during lunch. The guy follows me. He says, “Hey,” but it’s unnecessary. I don’t say anything. He locks the door and I raise my eyebrows. He kisses my neck and puts his hands down my pants. I lean into his hand, try to move with him in a way that I like. I close my eyes, tight. I think about the feeling of anticipation when the needle hits my skin. He puts my hand on his dick, over his pants. I rub it. He comes, with an unenthusiastic shudder. He’s wearing those same dark denim jeans from the other day.
When he steps away, I say, “I have to pee,” and gesture my head towards the door.
“Cool.” He walks out.
I think of myself out of here. Smoking in bed, walking by the park, calling my dealer. I don’t eat dinner. I don’t eat anything. I think about that guy’s daughter. I think he was lying about trying for her.
The blizzard rattles against the broken window in our room. The snow and the wind push against the pane of broken glass, shaking it, forcing it inside. The duct tape that was holding it together frays. It barely fought against the wind, recognizing its master when it felt its breath. I pull the blankets over me, becoming a tightly wound little ball. Staring out at the storm, I watch my window give way. It fails in its quest to protect me. I pull the thin, acrylic blankets closer, trying to fuse them with my skin. It’s no use. The wind howls through now, a never-ending gust.
Somehow, Amy still sleeps. Her organs are too focused on their own failures to notice much around them. I look over at her, and I’m so jealous I bite my lip to stop from screaming. Jealous that she can sleep on, that she seems unbothered by the storm and the broken window and her fucked up bowels, that she can exist in this place with a smile and thoughts of the future.
I think about floating out of the window. About letting the storm hold me high in the air. I walk to the broken shards of glass, sure that I’ll be able to stick my hand out into the storm and be swiftly pulled into it. That it will take me home.
All I do is help break the window further, punching into it. Amy’s head snaps up. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I don’t think I can stay. I don’t think I can do this.” They feel like the most words I’ve spoken in days.
“No one’s gonna make you fucking stay. Leave if you’re not ready.”
I look at her blankly, and she gets out of bed and walks towards me.
“You’re bleeding, you know.” I look down at my hand. There are a few small cuts, and blood is dripping onto the carpet.
“I didn’t know.”
I sidestep Amy and head towards the bathroom. I wash my cuts, trying to avoid making eye contact with myself in the mirror. I can’t take it. It’s a foregone conclusion. I decided when I put my hand through the window, and I can’t change my mind now. I can’t.
I go back to our bedroom and find Amy lying down again, but with the lights still on. “I’m just gonna pack up.”
“Yeah.” She puts her pillow over her eyes.
They took my garbage bags away to avoid this very thing, so I just stuff all my shit into pillowcases with trembling hands. I want to tell Amy I’m sorry, but I don’t know how, and I don’t think I am.
I shut the light on my way out, and I hear Amy’s ragged breath. She’ll be fine.
She’s one of the smiley ones. I try to move quietly through the house, moving silently past the walls with painted sayings and scripture, and the girls’ unlocked doors and heavy snores.
Ava Robinson is an emerging writer. Her work as appeared in Soundings East, Little Patuxent Review, and Literary Orphans. She graduated with an undergraduate degree in History from Brooklyn College in 2016, and is currently working at the Tenement Museum. She has lived in New York City all her life and has always loved telling stories.
A confessed outsider, Chicago’s J. Ray Paradiso is a recovering academic in the process of refreshing himself as an EXperiMENTAL writer and street photographer. His work has appeared in dozens of publications including Big Pond Rumors, Storgy and Typishly. Equipped with cRaZy quilt graduate degrees in both Business Administration and Philosophy, he labors to fill temporal-spatial, psycho-social holes and, on good days, to enjoy the flow. All of his work is dedicated to his true love, sweet muse and body guard: Suzi Skoski Wosker Doski.